Was this a snoop?
June 20, 2011 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Was this a snoop? Spouse and I have a magazine stack by the toilet. Was reading the other day and pulled out an old copy of Oprah magazine and noticed she filled out one of those self-assessment questionnaires. As a result I've learned something about her that many, many months of couples therapy couldn't get me to understand about her. I'd like to invoke my new knowledge but I feel like I snooped...or did I?

More specifically, my wife has had a tremendously difficult time keeping friends. And it has strained our relationship as well. I guess she could be generically described as a "know-it-all" She always has an opinion on things. Unfortunately, she often claims authority with topics she knows little about. It is never subtle and often extreme. As a hypothetical example, imagine being in the company of a lawyer with 20+ years of experience in his field, and he tells you the process of handling an XYZ case. With little pause, my spouse will respond, "Absolutely not," and quote a blog article she read earlier that week. Of course, she is not a lawyer. I'll occasionally chime in something like, "That blog has an interesting take,-- Jim (the lawyer), since you do this everyday, is there anything to it?"

So, for what it's worth, the self-assessment questionnaire asked something like, "Do people look to you for answers?" and she scored herself whatever the highest score was. She was far more moderate in her scoring of other questions so this stood out to me. I've always felt she suffered from an inferiority complex (for being a bit less educated or life-experienced than others in our social circle), so I've strived to boost her confidence by validating (see example above) what clearly sometimes is an incorrect statement or one where the average person would understand that they're telling an obvious expert they're wrong and that the only thing they have to back up their own opinion is a blog article, and as a result should listen and maybe not claim authority. After reading the survey, I think I had her read wrong. I now think she feels "superior" and does not see that people actually don't want to hear her opinion as much as she thinks they do. So, my two part question is:

Did I snoop by reading her self-assessment questionnaire? and, with my new found knowledge, what might I do different when she claims she is expert is something she knows little about?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
OP, have you and your wife discussed this issue in a therapeutic context or the context of a loving, open, intimate conversation?

Without the answer to that question, it's hard to tell whether "invoking" your new "knowledge" is appropriate.
posted by pupstocks at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's an old saying that goes like this:

"By the toilet, you can recall it
Needs a password, not preferred."
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:58 PM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

I don't think a magazine is in the same category as "locked diary by bedstand", "password-protect email", "diary site that hasn't been shared with you ever". You had no way of knowing there was privileged information in there, so whatever is in there is fair game. Maybe deep down she wanted you to see it?

I think instead of confronting this issue when you're in front of other people, which will probably be deeply embarrassing for her, you should discuss what you found in private. Doing this in a way that doesn't make her feel threatened or embarrassed is extremely important in helping the message set in. Don't decide what you're going to do in public, and don't do anything in public, until you have had this conversation.
posted by bleep at 8:58 PM on June 20, 2011

I think whether your actions constituted "snooping" is going to be pretty subjective and based on a lot of factors we can't know. In particular the sense of your actions will come from how you act (or not) on what you think you have learned.

Your general question has a tone of trying to "fix" something about your partner. This just sends up all sorts of red flags for me. The first of which is simply whether your wife shares your perception that she has trouble keeping friends and that this strains your relationship.

Tread carefully and gently. And don't try to make your wife into someone she isn't or doesn't want to be. Start with whatever share goals you have, get them aligned and then work out the rest.
posted by meinvt at 9:00 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Is your wife self-aware enough to at least realize that her mannerisms and approach to life may be alienating people enough? Like does she recognize a causal relationship between her behavior and her lack of friends, or does she assume everyone else has a problem and she's perfect?

I assume you and she are in therapy together (yes?) to improve interspousal communication, and man, as a recovering know-it-all, I can see how this kind of self-scoring would give you insight into how your wife's world view impacts her modus operendi in general.

Have you ever directly confronted your wife about this behavior, though? Like could you say to her, "Hey, have you ever noticed that you present yourself as an authority on absolutely everything? I felt really uncomfortable the last time this presented itself because it really offended our mutual friend. I love that you articulate yourself so well on so many topics. In fact it's one of the reasons I married you. This, though, isn't you. You're better than this. You don't need to be the authority on everything. It's hurting your credibility each time you act as though you are, and that's not fair to you because you have so much to offer."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:10 PM on June 20, 2011 [22 favorites]

*enough to lose friends over it, first sentence
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:11 PM on June 20, 2011

I don't think this was snooping at all. But I don't think you can really point it out to her in any direct way by referring to the questionnaire. But I think you should feel free to challenge her "knowledge" and let her know in some gentle fashion that she often comes on a little strong with her opinions.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:13 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

She wants this to be found. Why else would you leave it by the toilet? Not snooping.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:17 PM on June 20, 2011

Does she have a job? If/when you finally have a heart to heart with her about this, you can point out that her projecting authority in the law is like a lawyer telling her about her job.
posted by blargerz at 9:19 PM on June 20, 2011

The find you mention (i.e. that your wife feels superior) doesn't strike me as stunning revelation, or anything like an intimate secret. From your description, and the example you gave, I'd guess that some of your acquaintances already hold this view of her, simply on the basis of her behavior. So no, I don't think you need to be anxious about having discovered something you shouldn't have.
posted by Maxa at 9:24 PM on June 20, 2011

It's a silly quiz in a a glossy women's magazine, filled out to kill time, quite possibly while sitting on the throne. Good grief, please don't cite this as a true confession regarding her innermost psyche.
posted by desuetude at 9:26 PM on June 20, 2011 [30 favorites]

I had to have a conversation like this with my spouse (although my spouse is not pompous; he just gets excited about topics and tends to talk over other, more knowledgeable people.) It was making me nuts for years. Finally I told him, and kind of made a little joke about it. Like "listen I have to tell you something that you've been doing, that I need you to change. You know I love that you're curious and read a lot, but sometimes we hang out with people who know *even more than you* about certain topics! Not often! But sometimes! And when that happens, I need you to go ahead and let THEM talk when I ask them about their fields of expertise, ok?" He didn't realize he was doing it, he thought he was just having enthused conversations, but approaching it with some levity took the sting out, I hope.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:27 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

and yeah, the magazine is a red herring here. No it's not snooping, but she'll correctly think you're insane if you bring it up as ~evidence~. The problem that you can and should gently bring up to her is the pattern you've witnessed, not some quiz.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:29 PM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

Also perhaps engage in more shared mind expanding activities, like watching documentaries, debates and lectures on youtube, or just going to the bookstore together and reading stuff while getting coffee.
posted by blargerz at 9:30 PM on June 20, 2011

I don't think it's snooping, but I do think you have to be extremely careful about how you approach this with her AND there is a very good possibility that what you think she meant when she rated herself high wasn't actually what she was thinking. She circled a number, she didn't write an essay on her vast superiority to others and her feeling obligated to her fellow man to share all her knowledge. Honestly I wouldn't even bring up the quiz, I would bring up the actual issue you have with your wife's behavior and just use this as a chance to view her behavior from a different lens.

Also never discount that you couldn't be right on both counts or neither. She could feel superior in many ways, but inferior in others. Or she could just think she's getting into a rousing debate on a subject the other person is very interested in and has no idea how abrasive she is. Hard to say, but sometimes people read too much into the psyche of people with not the best social skills, when really the person might just be a bit obtuse and would quickly correct their behavior if they had any idea how much the were offending people. But of course most people are too polite to just tell the person and they never have any idea.

Also I would stop validating her knowitallness. I'm not saying you should in any way criticize or put her down, but you're basically actively encouraging her behavior rather than reinforcing her self esteem in more positive ways.
posted by whoaali at 9:51 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

This is not snooping. And I'm not sure that's really what's at issue here. Good luck working through this.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:55 PM on June 20, 2011

Very much agreed: She could feel superior in many ways, but inferior in others.

I've noticed that extreme ying-yang traits tend to pair within single personalities. So bullies tend to consider themselves victims, aggressive types often think of themselves as shy, intelligent types worry a lot about feeling stupid, and so on. When there's a superiority-inferiority pairing--and I've only ever seen this in men, so it's interesting to hear about it in a woman--this may be symptomatic of narcissism (the clinical kind); that is, something too emotionally profound for you to talk her out of in a reasonable, rational, loving straight-forward way.

If you suspect that's the case, I'd only broach it in therapy, as you'll need some help talking about this pattern--yes patterns, not quizzes--and your therapist will likely have more techniques on hand to effectively address these issues than you will.
posted by Violet Blue at 10:16 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

with my new found knowledge, what might I do different when she claims she is expert is something she knows little about?
If she is having a conversation with other people, consider doing nothing. She is her own person - her views are not necessarily yours. It is easy to be embarrassed by our partner's behavior but if you realize that her behavior with others has nothing to do with you, it will make your life together much easier since you will no longer need to fix her.
posted by metahawk at 10:18 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it were me and I was losing friends without understanding why, and at the same time thought it was appropriate to expound on topics I knew little about because I thought people wanted to hear my opinions.... I'd seriously want to know about it.

I have social anxiety and often will ask my partner for feedback about how things went when we were in social situations together. I think if you have the kind of relationship where you can talk honestly and sincerely about your strengths and weaknesses without feeling judged you should bring this up but without mentioning the magazine specifically as that would be kind of embarrassing I think. If not, work towards building this type of rapport with your spouse. I think this is something therapy could help with.
posted by hazyjane at 10:35 PM on June 20, 2011

Snooping is defined by the snoopee. And unfortunately a possible letting-stuff-lie-about pseudo-Freudian quirk doesn't change that.

Example: my ex had her dreams diary open so that there was no chance not to see what she'd written on a day I was cleaning the bedroom. We also had discussed each-others dreams previously. Nevertheless my (stupid) reference later to I-don't-recall-what about her dream made her freeze in disapproval, and the next time I saw any writings on her side of the bed, they were made in greek letters (no. I didn't try to read the notes).

The true risk of using that test is that your "new knowledge" might be fooling you.
-- First, you might be wrong in your conclusion even if the test was filled in honestly.
-- Second, yes, maybe she planted the test to be read, but are you meant to read it as an 'as is' account or as a 'I wish I was' depiction? In the latter case, perhaps your first interpretation of her was better, who knows.

Understanding your partner is all fine, but you're going quite far with analyzing, and it seems a little like you're into finding some moral high ground on the basis of what you know. That is likely not going to go well.
posted by Namlit at 1:26 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

N'thing not snooping. But also, I agree with others that there's no way she "wanted you to find it". You are connecting one checked box to a whole host of specific situations - I really doubt your wife had those in mind when she made her answer. It's possible that she wasn't even responding based on the kinds of conversations you are thinking of, but (for example) her excellent relationship or problem-solving advice. The point is, please don't jump to a big conclusion here, but instead use this as a flag that you need to address this issue. It's clearly bothering you.
posted by Bebo at 4:42 AM on June 21, 2011

there is a very good possibility that what you think she meant when she rated herself high wasn't actually what she was thinking.

This is an important point. "Do people look to you for answers?" is an awfully vague question. Depending on the context of the quiz and the quiz-taker's personality and life circumstances, it could mean "are you smarter than other people," or "do you assume leadership in most situations," or "do you get pulled into friends' personal drama against your will," or "do people depend on you for advice even when you're not qualified or comfortable giving it," and so on.

I'd say you don't have any new knowledge at all. You saw a circled number in an Oprah magazine and have wedged it in to an existing issue you've been having with her. (And if she doesn't subscribe to the magazine, and borrowed the issue from a friend or took it from a doctor's office, it may not even be her answer.) It sounds like her know-it-all-ism, and the tension it's caused, was an issue before you found the magazine, and would be an issue if you hadn't found it. If that's the case, it's a good idea to start approaching things differently anyway, but don't use the magazine as evidence.

As to whether or not it's snooping: not on its face, no. But if you find innocent stuff your spouse leaves around, and use it as an opening salvo in a "we need to talk about your problems" discussion, she's probably going to feel ambushed. She's going to start wondering what else you're judging her on behind her back, and she may start feeling uncomfortable doing regular stuff around the house, in case you're going to use it against her one day. Address your issues if they need addressing, but let the lady leave her magazines by the crapper.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:52 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not snooping, but she still might be mortified that she left it laying around.
posted by gjc at 5:04 AM on June 21, 2011

"I saw you did the quiz in Oprah and some of your answers were really different from what I expected."

"Yeah, my latest character is turning into a real pain. I want her to be totally confident but how do you describe that when you're not?"
"It's so embarrassing, but I was trying to get into your head so I tried to fill out the quiz like I was you... Did I get pretty close?"
"What quiz? Huh, I never filled that out, maybe it was [guest] who was here last week... that's so funny."

Nthing that the quiz is a red herring.
posted by anaelith at 5:37 AM on June 21, 2011

No one needs to be right this badly. Stop referring to this as "knowledge." Pretend you never saw it.
posted by hermitosis at 6:14 AM on June 21, 2011

Oh dear god. I study Sociology, and there are so many factors in these kinds of conversational behaviors. So MANY.

Magazine questionnaires are so vague and useless. Do not take them with even the largest slab of salt. Please.

Question order, context, (magazine designed and edited and illustrated to make women feel awful about themselves so they buy more stuff) wording, and answer wording all change the answer we choose. There are people who make a living studying how each of these things changes the answers that people choose. Real surveys have real redundancy built into them. It's why you might wonder "didn't I already answer this?" Sociologists are checking to make sure you actually feel or behave that way. And they're checking the validity of the questions does the damn question even mean anything?.

Pretend you never saw the damn thing, because she has already forgotten she ever took it. She circles the answers once a month to whatever is in these magazines. It's funny to see what you "are."

Real sociology takes into account/adjusts for other factors, like age, education, income, marital status, parents education level. Magazine surveys - sure the magazine is generally aimed at a particular demographic, but ... oh man. Just, forget that these surveys even exist, please.

I had a really horrible survey design experience, as a result I read about it a lot, so I know in depth where things go pear shaped. Also, the professor who I tangled with in that case has moved on to a super prestigious university leaving a trail of angry people behind her. Yes, I'm bitter about survey design.

While I'm here, this answer I gave a few days ago, it fits here too:

My suggestion is, probably you shouldn't. Not because you can't make her see that she's not who she's saying she is. But, because you're not really qualified to unpack all the layers of what's going on here.

First, let me remind you that personality is relative.

Next, identity has many facets including (but not limited to)

Who we say we are (which may vary contextually - consider describing yourself on a first date versus a job interview. Most people believe both narratives, but hoo-boy are they just a tad different!)
Who other people say we are outside our presence (which is bound up in context also)
Who we believe we are (some people keep they're I'm a losing loser thoughts in check better than others, some don't have those thoughts at all)
Who we're told we are (This has been studied extensively with regard to gender. Put teeny tiny babies in pink, they'll be described as sweet and quiet. Same baby, blue outfit, passersby will say "he's" strong and curious.)

So, you can see how these 4 things can't possibly match up 100% of the time.

She's gotten her 'performed' identity from somewhere - interrupting sharing knowledge. But she's also got her perception of herself. And, she's got your perception of her.

Imagine for a moment that she comes from a very screamy uneducated family. In that environment, you might agree that she's relatively meek well read. And that behavior is or isn't adaptive for her there. She needs to be interrupting at home to be heard at all sharing knowledge at home to be special, and even then she's maybe not taken seriously. All her life she's been told she's quiet and shy (and hypothetically some worse things) the smart one. So she goes out into the world, if not believing that she's quiet and shy the smart one, perhaps feeling obligated to continue that narrative. Or, possibly, she doesn't believe it and she feels dumb ashamaed because her perception of herself doesn't match with what's been said about her.

(Oh man, I just had a huge HUGE coffee and I apologize if this doesn't flow very well, but I'm not going to knock myself out over it before I run to get a hair cut)
posted by bilabial at 6:49 AM on June 21, 2011 [10 favorites]

I agree with others that this quiz is not reliable information about her that can be taken as her true opinion about herself. Quizzes in womens' magazines are GAMES, not therapists.

That's not to say it wouldn't be interesting to talk about - you've got two options, though:
1. you can talk about her and how she relates to the world, and if you use ideas from a women's magazine quiz to shape the way you ask her questions, that's not a product of snooping, but you can't assume you already know her answers just because a box was ticked.
2. You can talk about the quiz but not frame is as being particularly meaningful. Some evening when you're both home but not doing anything, go to the bathroom and come out a few minutes later with the magazine. Sit in the same room with her while you finish reading that fascinating article (you know, the one you started reading in the bathroom that made you bring the magazine out with you...). Then flip to the quiz, and say, "hey, if you filled this out, I'm filling it out, where's a pen?" Chances are good you will lure her into talking to you. It's not impossible that you can then have a conversation comparing your answers, but you can't act as if you've stumbled across anything more private than a half-finished crossword puzzle.
posted by aimedwander at 6:50 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The quiz didn't really reveal new insight into your wife's self-perception. You already knew that your wife acts as if her knowledge and advice is wanted and valued, now you just have confirmation that she (probably) believes her knowledge and advice is wanted and valued.

If you want to broach the subject of her know-it-all attitude, talk about a concrete recent event, how it made you feel, how it probably seemed to the other person, and how your wife could have handled it differently:

"Do you remember last night when Jim said [XYZ] and you jumped in to disagree based on a blog post you read? I was really uncomfortable with the way you expressed your opinion. Jim's been in the industry for decades and has no doubt dealt with XYZ many times, and you kept insisting that he was wrong and you were right based on an article you read. It didn't feel like a conversation at that point, it felt like you were shutting him down--and on a topic that you don't actually know that much about. I wish you'd allowed room for the possibility that Jim knew what he was talking about--even just saying, 'That's interesting, because I read something completely different on [Blog], do you know why [Blogger] would suggest such a different way of handling XYZ?'"

Or, in the case of something where your wife does have expertise, but is acting like a know-it-all:

"Do you remember last night when Susan said she was going to send her kids to the YMCA Summer Camp, and you insisted that she should send them to Sports Camp instead? I was really uncomfortable with the way you expressed your opinion. Even if you've evaluated both camps and have reasons why you're sure Sports Camp is better, the way you shared your opinion really shut the conversation down. When Susan said she preferred the YMCA, I wish you had let the topic go."
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:05 AM on June 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

This isn't snooping. But also, it may not be as useful a piece of information as you think it is - those quizzes usually have very few and very blunt answers to choose from, so i don't know if you should take it too seriously.

That being said, it sounds like her know-it-all-ness is a major barrier to her social happiness, so perhaps you can use the quiz as a starting point for the discussion. (Like, just wander into the kitchen reading the magazine, or doing the quiz, and then discuss the differences in how you each answered the questions.) That said, if she's been like this for as long as you've known her, she probably fundamentally beleives in her own expertise, and it may be hard to change.
posted by Kololo at 7:06 AM on June 21, 2011

What you've done isn't 'snooping', and what you've gained isn't 'knowledge'.
posted by hot soup girl at 7:38 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) For what it's worth, I wouldn't call it snooping. The quiz was filled out and left in a common, public area.

2) I have lately (and with lots of therapy) realized what it was about my mother (and her legacy in myself) that has caused such strain in our/my relationships. I love her immensely, but she is an unapologetic, full blown narcissist- although she is blessedly benign and operates without intent to hurt (which is why I think no-one's killed her yet). But ultimately she is perpetually the victim and unwilling to realize that she is an agent in how she chooses to react and the choices she makes.

Her complete lack of self-awareness has been a heartbreaking, depression-filled uphill battle for my father and myself all our lives, and only recently have I realized the wall I've been banging my head against in trying to reason with her is her BLATANT need to feel right and to win at all costs. To similar extents such as telling experts that they are wrong.

I've thought about it a lot and I believe her know-it-all-ness comes from a profound need to prove herself worthy of love. I can't emphasize this enough- she internalized the need to be tough and strong at a young age, and it's been working for and against her her whole life. It's helped her succeed professionally, but to this day, she has only ONE friend in the entire United States, and ONE friend in her native country. And it's only my opinion, but I'm pretty sure they're only her friends out of pity and history. And that makes me so incredibly sad for her.

Now with the perspective of an adult, I have had conversations with others in our family, and we all love her dearly because she is a deeply good person and so capable. We only wish she'd understand that if she'd just let herself be vulnerable, or show weakness, she'd realize that it's OK not to be perfect and we'll love her just the same or even more because OMG she's human!!

Oh man, you have no idea how much of my life has been tied up in the nonsense drama she creates. And it has felt good after all these years to realize I'm not crazy, and that others around me have long shared the same loving but pitying opinion of her.

If it weren't for a (somewhat fractious but ultimately helpful) boyfriend in my early twenties who patiently tried to point out my thoughtless behaviors and where I needed to work on empathy (though at the time we fought a lot because I was defensive about his accusations), I now appreciate his care and guidance in starting me on a path toward being a less self-centered know-it-all. I'm constantly checking and rechecking my words and actions and asking "is it kind, is it good, is it true, does it improve on the silence?", because her kind of validation-seeking personality isn't pretty to me.

From a daughter's perspective, this Ask pointed me in the direction of the website "Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers" (which I admit goes over the top sometimes but has been mostly a revelation for me and my father).

I only relate all this because I don't know if you have children, but for their sake, and your own sanity down the line, please bring this up in the context of therapy, and use specific examples. Take it from me and my (WONDERFUL, LOVING, long-suffering) father, no one should have to babysit or make excuses for their partner's behavior, that's exhausting and codependent. She may not be as troubled as my mother (though they seem to share similarities of education experience), but at the very least, it's something that bothers you and you deserve to be able to communicate openly, albeit kindly, about it.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 2:28 PM on June 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

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